Photo by Jonnie Miles
on this story
The first store in West Town Mall opened 30 years ago this March. Has the Knoxville area's first enclosed shopping mall become something more than a shopping mall?
by Jack Neely
Today, West Town is home to well over 100 stores. Some 40 of these are stores that exist nowhere else in the Knoxville area: if you need to go to Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Parisian, or the Disney Store, you need to go to West Town. The place has a total of 6,760 parking spaces and draws 9.1 visitors a year, or an average of 24,931 a day. It swells for Christmas seasons and special events like last weekend's "Most Beautiful Baby" contest. Most of these visitors seem happy and animated. The place seems more pleasant than ever before, equipped with sunlit "court" areas, vaulted ceilings, park benches, and trees.
It seems, several have commented, like an old-fashioned downtown. Some people go there just to walk, to sit and watch people. You see people you know, and you also see many, many people you don't know, people of all races: you hear Spanish, Arabic, Japanese. You see veils and babushkas. West Town Mall may be the best place to witness the ethnic diversity of the Knoxville area.
The designers of the place played up the urban theme. Street signs indicate directions. Handcart-style street vendors hawk their wares in the corridors. Some stores have awnings, though there's not much chance of rain or glare in here.
There's a place called "Street Corner News." It's not on a street, or even on a corner, and there are only about five newspapers, and no magazines, available there.
The arcade leading up to Regal Cinemas features streetscapes which somehow evolve from Knoxville buildings into New York buildings. Upstairs is maybe the most pleasant place in East Tennessee to get a ticket for a new movie. The theater effectively has three lobbies; the first is a streetscape with a fountain statue more prominent than any statue of any Knoxvillian ever erected in that other downtown, the old, outdoor one. It's a statue of Don Lockwood, a character in a movie set in 1927, who dances down an urban sidewalk as he sings in the rain. Windows and awnings of a computer-game arcade, even with a second floor presently vacant, build on the urban illusion. A street-style theater marquee welcomes you inside.
Asked to explain its architectural philosophy, the management mentions mainly its "Traditional English Garden concept...selected in an effort to provide shoppers with an atmosphere which evokes the traditional values, associated with the Knoxville area, while depicting the community as vibrant, growing and progressive." They don't suggest whether the large palmettos in one of the lusher court areas are more English or Knoxvillian.
Botanically consistent or not, something works. Nearly everybody you see looks happy: people, young and old, are smiling, laughing. The clerks are friendly (and mostly very young); even the customers are friendly. Most of the people seem animated and happy. Several say West Town has become for them what downtown used to be.
On an easel in front of an art gallery is an idealized living-room painting of downtown San Francisco. An elderly man approaches a stranger and begins chatting amiably about how wonderful a city San Francisco was. He once loved San Francisco, and you have the impression that for him, West Town Mall is the next best thing.
Around the corner in the food court, old people and young people sit and drink coffee. People talk on cell phones. Sometimes a whole parade of five or six women pass, one behind the other, holding their cell phones to their ears proudly, like British grenadiers bearing arms in a Remembrance Day parade.
Many of these people aren't serious shoppers. Many, teenagers and old-timers and full-time mommies alike, seem to be here mainly to see their friends, to swap gossip and news, just like a previous generation did in a diner or on a downtown sidewalk.
West Town was five years old when UT journalism professor Paul Ashdown moved here from New Jersey. "When I first came to Knoxville in 1977, I didn't much like the West Town Mall. I'd seen bigger and better malls. The traffic around the mall was thick. The mall seemed dowdy." A couple of years ago, though, the West Knoxvillian found himself enjoying his obligatory trips to West Town. "I liked it because of its vitality," he says. "The renovation had improved the overall look of the mall and parts of it were very attractive. I usually found whatever I needed, and I really liked some of the little shops. And I liked running into people I knew."
Is the mall becoming the new American town square? "I can't imagine a hanging in the mall courtyard," Ashdown says. "I can't imagine the Lincoln-Douglas debates at the mall. I'm sure a street preacher would be hustled out by security guards. But to the extent that downtowns were places where people gathered to shop, gossip, and exchange ideas, yes, the mall is a public space."
But urban-design expert Mark Schimmenti, the UT architecture professor who's now in charge of Nashville's progressive urban-design center, makes an interesting point about public spaces. "My litmus test for a 'public place' is whether it respects your first-amendment rights under the Constitution."
Ashdown agrees with Schimmenti's assessment of what defines a public place. But West Town, he says, is "a place where commercial speech is the norm. I don't know how far I could push my first-amendment rights in a mall," admits Ashdown. "If I started making a political speech I suppose I'd be asked to leave. I'd probably be asked to leave if I was trying to sell something in the mall, too."
Solicitation is indeed forbidden here, and the management admits that "we refrain from getting involved in political and religious issues." Downtown's street preachers wouldn't be welcome here, though West Town does make allowance for a store called Lemstone Books, which, as customers discover only after they enter, is really an all-Christian gift shop.
Regardless of its popularity, or similarity to a downtown, it's clear that West Town makes its living selling merchandise, not providing the community with a public place. The first thing a reporter learns about West Town Mall is that its management is as anxious about image as the carefully styled teenagers who promenade the mall's corridors. Just before a scheduled interview, the management called and canceled, insisting that all questions, some of which were as simple as "how many parking spaces do you have?" be submitted in writing. Then they took four business days to chew over these questions before responding. All of West Town's official statements in this story came via email.
West Town is hard on reporters. In 1995, two producers from the BBC flew to Knoxville to tape an audio documentary about James Agee's classic, "Knoxville: Summer 1915." The Englishmen took their microphone to West Town, soliciting opinions. They hadn't been there very long before a man told them to leave; they weren't allowed to interview people at West Town.
A few years ago, a Metro Pulse photographer was told he couldn't take photographs inside the mall. Photography without written consent of the mall management, I learned last week, is prohibited.
"We do control access of non-shoppers to the property," admits the management in their written responses. Reporters are allowed to interview shoppers only with prior approval of the management, and that approval comes only after their assessment of what sort of story's being researched. Told Metro Pulse was doing a cover story about West Town, marketing director Kaye Jones said, "This isn't going to be another thing about sprawl, is it?"
"There are other quasi-public spaces where first-amendment freedoms are constricted, at least culturally if not legally," says Ashdown. "The malls are in the business of protecting people in other ways such as offering security. Malls essentially have a private police force and lots of security cameras. This is not what we usually envision when we think of a public space, but of course that's really changing. Many ostensibly public areas are now ringed by security cameras. At least in the mall we know we're all being watched."
One Friday afternoon, a college-age woman approaches with a flier. It's headed, at the top, in bold black letters: IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE. You stop and read it.
"An entire shipment of fine linen bedsheets has been stopped at the Howard Johnsons (west town mall) and will be sold to the public on a first come, first served basis today only."
Ask teenage visitors what brings them to West Town, and they'll say, "Du-uh. The stores."
There are some local institutions at West Town. The management, in fact, claims that there are 28 of them. At one of the eastern entrances is perhaps the most local institution at West Town: Sam & Andy's. It's opposite Ruby Tuesday's, and that fact is almost eerie. At the time the mall opened, the original Sam & Andy's was once just two blocks down the Cumberland Avenue sidewalk from the original Ruby Tuesday's.
Sam & Andy's is now gone from Cumberland, but here it is, somehow, at the mall. It claims its heritage with the framed portraits of Uncle Sam and Uncle Andy and the legend, "Serving Knoxville Since 1946." The steamed Italian sub is creditable: passably similar to those big George used to make for me. West Town's officially a "SMOKE-FREE PROPERTY," but, true to its heritage, Sam & Andy's does allow smoking here.
However, the West Town version is different. The guy making the sandwich isn't a middle-age fellow with an accent and an attitude; he's a young college-age boy. They don't make pizza, the staple the original Sam & Andy's claimed to have introduced to Knoxville; not even Uncle Andy's Special Deluxe. ("We don't have room for much of anything back here," the boy says.) And they don't serve beer. Friday evenings at the old Sam & Andy's were once standing room only, a place where grad-school dropouts could debate politics and philosophy; go to the mall Sam & Andy's at the same time and you see a handful of tired and perfectly sober mommies.
Sam & Andy's is a bit of an exception at West Town these days. When the mall opened, nearly half of its original 40 tenants were local, among them Kimball's Jewelers and M.S. McClellan's men's clothing store. In 2002, both are still thriving Knoxville businesses, but neither still has a store at West Town.
And there's an irony: When West Town opened, as a partly local enterprise with a large percentage of local tenants, it was in a plain building with no local references in the decorations. Today, West Town is owned by a major international corporation. The manager is from Texas, transferred here from Louisiana, and the overwhelming majority of its tenants are national chains. But surrounding the escalator up to Regal's theaters are those fanciful cutouts of a rearranged and concentrated downtown Knoxville.
Comparisons between downtown and West Town are inevitable. UT architecture Dean Marleen Davis has made the point, for example, that downtown and West Town are very close to the same size. It makes them easy to compare, geographically, and some of the comparisons are surprising.
West Town has long been blamed for killing off downtown. That's unjustin part, because there's no corpse: downtown never died. In fact, despite the food court and other restaurants of West Town, there are still twice as many eating establishments on a similar acreage downtown. That's easy to explain: on any weekday in 2002, there are a lot more people downtown.
After expansions, including a 726-space parking garage, West Town now supplies an impressive 6,760 parking spaces, and in December, it's easy to believe they're mostly occupied. On its similar acreage, however, downtown has 16,000 parking spacesand, on any weekday, the overwhelming majority of them are occupied. The genius of the mall, the key to the "liveliness" people talk about, is that the people who come to West Town are more visible than the people who come downtown. Everyone at West Town is afoot and in motion, never hidden in a carrell inside a mirrored building.
West Town doesn't match downtown in after-hours entertainment, churches, government services, or residential population, either. It's just that people don't shop much downtown any more. When people talk about West Town killing downtown, they mean only one aspect of downtown, and that's retail shopping.
For the record, West Town management officially approves of "any type of downtown redevelopment" with a positive economic impact, specifically endorsing the convention center and Universe Knoxville.
Knoxville isn't prominent in the history of enclosed shopping malls. They started popping up in the Midwest as early as 1956. One of the pioneers of the concept was one Victor Gruen, an Austrian refugee who, even in the 1940s, was appalled at the consequences of American suburban sprawl. He conceived the mall as a way to inhibit sprawl and restore community by reviving the idea of pedestrian commerce. It was a revolutionary idea in the 1950s and '60s, when the conventional wisdom held that in this brave new automobile age, modern shoppers wouldn't go to a store unless they could park right in front of it. But surprisingly, many of these pedestrians-only malls did very well.
Knoxville suffered some mall envy; in 1961, for the first time in its century-plus history, people started calling the city's traditional marketplace Market Square Mall. To some, the modernist concrete coverings erected over pedestrian areas in the Victorian marketplace was the next best thing to the enclosed malls we saw in magazines.
By the mid-1960s, real enclosed malls had shown up all over the nation, though Gruen, who conceived the mall as a multi-purpose center for residences, offices, recreation, and shopping, was disappointed that investors tended to want malls to serve only as shopping centers. He founded what would be one of the biggest mall development companies in America, but eventually moved back to Vienna.
Knoxville's first mall began as a local project by a West Knox cattleman who wore his hat brim turned up all the way around, like Harry Truman. Oliver Smith, Jr., had an unusual resume for a real-estate developer. Son of a Concord dairy farmer, Smith was a sometime Democratic politician and former New Deal bureaucrat who'd helped buy up the Oak Ridge area before the Manhattan Project. Following in his father's bootprints, he also raised Herefords, ran a tractor-sales company in Bearden and developed a reputation as a canny auctioneer. Convinced that Knoxville was spilling westward, he grew bullish on Kingston Pike.
He often took cattle-marketing trips with another cow enthusiast, ophthalmologist Dr. John L. Montgomery, Sr., who owned property just past Deane Hill Country Club. On their trips, they noticed that enclosed shopping malls were materializing in cities around the South. Smith and Montgomery formed a partnership, eventually including another landowner, Mrs. P.A. McGinnis, and acquired the area of small farms and woods just past Deane Hill Country Club on Morrell Road. Even in 1965, it seemed a likely space for a mall. Adjacent West Hills had been a successful subdivision for a decade. Interstate 40 was just then being completed, parallel to Kingston Pike, and closer to the Pike here than elsewhere. It was "a strategic location," Smith later remarked. "Ain't no spot like it, really."
They gave the project a typical mall name.
It's surprising no one claimed the phrase West Town before Smith & Co. got it. Many malls around the English-speaking world pair a direction with a geographical feature, sometimes in one word, sometimes not. Dozens of malls have direction/feature names: Eastridge, Westgate, Eastgate, Westlake, Northland, Westwood, NorthPark, Southdale, Northbrook, Southland, etc. West may be the single most popular prefix for a mall name; it is, with eerie frequency, the rich side of town.
There are a few other, smaller "West Town Malls" in America, plus one in Canada and another in London, England. But call it up on the internet: Knoxville's is the most famous West Town Mall in the world.
There were a few problems, back in 1965, some of which had to do with the fact that this whole Bearden area had only recently been annexed. The Fourth Creek sewage treatment plant wasn't on line yet.
No opposition shows up in the files. Kingston Pike had been turning commercial out this way for years. When Smith first started considering the mall idea, this stretch was already graced with several trailer parks, filling stations, and motels, not to mention Deane Hill Country Club. Before West Town opened, there was, within a block or two of Morrell Road, a Shakey's Pizza, Ivanhoe House of Beef, a Kroger, the Fox movie theater, a K-Mart, the new Fowler's showroom, a Jerry's, both Minnie Pearl's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the offices of the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
By 1966, The Chrysler Corporation was encouraged by the mall's potential to get involved with West Town as a principal funder for the $10 million project. With Chrysler aboard, West Town was due to open in August 1968. Chrysler signed leases with some prominent local firms, like Kimball's Jewelers, one of the first local retail supporters of the mall. But the late '60s weren't ideal times for Chrysler. After some financing delays, the automaker pulled out in 1969. They cited "tight money."
As the 1970s opened, there were dozens of enclosed malls around the country. Nashville had one. Even Chattanooga had one. Knoxville seemed, once again, behind the curve. Smith kept working deals.
Then, in March 1970, into the picture came Ralph Biernbaum. Then in his 50s, the Stamford, Conn.-based developer built shopping malls for a living, and had been doing so since he opened the first shopping center in Rochester, N.Y., in 1942. A trustee of the International Council of Shopping Centers, he had chaired the first University of Shopping Centers at a Montreal convention in 1963. He didn't live here, but he was a hands-on developer who got to know many of the local merchants.
Suddenly West Town Mall was on track again. Biernbaum brought in New York architect Robert Kahn. It wouldn't be a mall for the architectural magazines. There would be no second floor and no central "court," a symbolic gathering place that was the pride of more extravagant malls. West Town would be plainer and cheaper than the well-known malls, a modern, efficient building with clean, little-embellished corridors, low ceilings, and no unnecessary windows.
To introduce Knoxville to the mall concept, they signed one of the city's oldest, best-known local department storesMiller's, which as late as 1972 was still operating two large downtown department stores under the same name. (The old Miller's was the huge store on Gay Street, dating to the turn of the century. Miller's had been trying to expand and modernize for years. After ditching a plan to rebuild in the '50s downtown, they acquired the modern Rich's Department Store on Henley Street, touted in 1954 as "suburban" in style.)
Groundbreaking at West Town came in November 1970, and construction was speedy. The company originally planned to open the first store within less than a year. After some minor delays, Miller's opened in the northwest corner of the new mall on March 13, 1972.
Resisting its old dowager image, Miller's embraced the '70s with muted lighting and modern plexiglas dividers and ceiling hangings; the management boasted that a magazine called Home Furnishings Daily had described their new mall presence as "one of the most advanced stores in the nation."
Against character, developer Biernbaum, a champion of postwar modernist commercial architecture, expressed interest in the big old Victorian-era Miller's building on Gay Street, which the store vacated only a year after opening at West Town. He thought the old dame would shine again, if only it were encased in modernist mirrored glass. (For Biernbaum, the original Miller's building was a rare failure. At great expense, the city removed Biernbaum's modernist encasement in 1998.)
For the next five months, the rest of the mall was still off limits, not quite done. Then came its grand opening, on August 2.
One of the original anchors, staking out its corner opposite Miller's, was Proffitt's, then a tiny Maryville-based chain whose only other stores were in Alcoa and Athens. Proffitt's Inc.the parent company now renamed Saks, Inc., after one of its many well-known acquisitionshas since become a national retail giant, many of its stores prominent in shopping malls around the nation. (The corporation also owns Parisian.) But its opening at West Town was Proffitt's first experiment with a mall. If West Town has any significance in the history of American business, it has to start with Proffitt's. The late Harwell Proffitt, company chairman and son of the founder, was one of the early heads of West Town's merchant association.
West Town's other two anchors were the usual corporate colossi: J.C. Penney's and Sears. The latter didn't finish its store until 1973.
Besides Miller's, among the 40 stores that inaugurated West Town were some old downtown Knoxville standbys: the previously mentioned M.S. McClellan's and Kimball's Jewelers, plus Gateway Books and Hamilton Bank. Nearly half of the mall's original tenants were local: A candle-and-soap store called Candlelight took orders for the manufacturer, "a lady in McMinnville." The mall's first manager and promoter were both longtime Knoxville-area residents.
At a ceremony hosted by morning-radio celebrity Hop Edwards, Mayor Kyle Testerman spoke, along with Ralph Biernbaum and Oliver Smith, who was declared the "mayor of West Town." One of the speakers was Gustave Handley, the president of Miller's, son of one of the Gay Street store's long-ago founders.
Of greater interest to some of the mall's first-day visitors was Carol O'Neal, that July's Playboy Playmate of the Month. Wearing clothes, she served as "hostess" at the opening of J. Riggings, an especially groovy men's clothing store.
This was an exciting, hip new era: "Modern sculptures by Japanese artist Kyohai Inukai add glamour to the interior," went the breathless report. Proffitt's featured "contemporary chrome and plastic fixtures," as well as a nail-free display system "being used for the first time in the U.S." West Town had a modernist logo that some found unsettling: in a circle, an image of three abstract flying birds on a collision course, one of them lacking its posterior fuselage.
Soon West Town had its own movie theater, a freestanding one-screen concrete structure in the northeast corner of the parking lot. For 12 years, West Town enjoyed its status as Knoxville's only shopping mall.
Oliver Smith lived in a mansion on Westland Drive, not far from West Town, but sold his share of the mall in 1981; he may have used the proceeds to invest in a new project across town. From his Connecticut offices, Biernbaum remained in charge of West Town until 1984, when he sold it to Rosenberg Real Estate Equity Funds, an out-of-state company. Biernbaum claimed it was just too good an offer to pass uppeople who knew him say the offer was more than he thought it was worth. But it was a handy time to unload West Town.
Because that year, a larger, more modern, two-story mall was going up across town. East Towne opened in the summer of 1984. One of its principal developers was "the Mayor of West Town," Oliver Smith. West Town's plain lines, which had looked so fresh and happening during the Nixon administration, seemed frumpish in a city that had just hosted the World's Fair. By 1985, the management confessed that West Town was facing "trying times." In October of that year, they held a "re-grand opening," but it wasn't clear that that would do the trick.
In 1987, owners at RREEF announced the first expansion of the mall, adding a handsome marble main entrance on the Kingston Pike side. Meanwhile, they shunted aside one of the mall's earliest champions. Jim Overbey of Kimball's Jewelers says they were squeezed out with a rent hike. The out-of state corporation "wanted their big chain jewelry stores in there," he says. "They weren't interested in dickering with a little local store." The jewelers' next-door neighbor, M.S. McClellan's, left the mall at the same time.
Like most malls, West Town has carefully avoided controversy. Perhaps the most dramatic incident in the mall's history was in 1988, when the mall's movie theater showed Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation Of Christ. Church groups picketed the screening outside the theater. Unable to compete with the multi-screen cineplexes down the street, the already old-fashioned one-screen theater went out of business soon afterward and was demolished.
However, as West Town became a part of ever-larger corporations, they began making associations that might have raised more East Tennessee eyebrows than any Scorcese film.
In 1991, RREEF entered into a joint venture with Edward J. DeBartolo, a company founded by a colorfully aggressive developer who'd been involved in enclosed malls since the '50s. Then in his 80s, DeBartolo himself was a high-stakes Las Vegas gambler who owned race tracks and pro sports teams; his son, Eddie, ran the San Francisco 49ers. Edward Sr. had alleged ties to the mobnot to mention Notre Dame University, which named a hall for himbut his company was one of the biggest mall builders and managers in the nation.
In the early '90s, West Town was a "DeBartolo mall." A major facelift came in 1994; soon afterward, Regal Cinemas opened inside. Meanwhile, RREEF's impressive marble entrance to West Town, with its engraved map of Tennessee, vanished with an expansion of Proffitt's; it had graced the mall for only about seven years.
Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr., died in 1994; months later, an Indianapolis-based company called Melvin Simon and Associates merged with DeBartolo; the resulting corporation was known as the Simon DeBartolo Group. Founded in 1960 by Bronx-born Melvin Simon with help from his little brother, Herb, the Simons built the first malls in Indiana and, by the late '60s, were leaders in their field. Later, Mel took some of his mall profits to Hollywood to fund feature films. He exhibited a fondness for risqué movies aimed at teenagers: he was producer of Porky's, among others.
Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., remained prominent in the company. However, in 1997 a federal investigation into Louisiana casino operations led to his indictment for extortion. DeBartolo pleaded guilty to a lesser felony in a plea-bargain agreement to testify against Louisiana's former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who called DeBartolo "Linda Tripp without the tapes." DeBartolo escaped with a six-figure fine and probation.
That year Simon dropped "DeBartolo" from its name. Soon afterward, DeBartolo and his sister sued each other for their millions in assets; Eddie came down with the Simon shares.
So, today, if you call West Town's main number, you'll hear it referred to as "West Town Mall, a Simon Mall." Mel's son, David, is now in charge of Simon Properties Group, which owns West Town and controls more than 200 shopping malls across America, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, including the very largest, Minnesota's gigantic Mall of America. Simon is the largest mall company in the world.
Now free and living in Tampa, DeBartolo still owns a large chunk of Simon. As does the Kuwaiti government. And that's not to mention Simon's multi-million dollar dealings with Enron.
Nobody's accusing them of any wrongdoing. Simon donated millions to the September 11 relief effort and has, itself, a pretty clean record. Despite whatever we think about Porky's or Arab dictatorships, nobody questions that the company runs a good mall.
West Town Mall no longer competes quite as aggressively with Knoxville Centerthat's a "Simon Mall," too, and has been since its inception as East Towne. West Town's management explains that "while our centers are diverse, we do work together on many projects, whether it be advertising, special events, or leasing. We are proud of the synergy between the two centers and find that it benefits both centers to work together."
Simon's known as an innovator in mall design. "We try to make malls for everybody," said Herb Simon in a 1998 interview. "If the older population, teenagers and families can feel very important there, then the more successful the mall is going to be. It becomes a destination, rather than just a place to go buy a pair of pants and leave."
At West Town, it shows. Most of the features that make West Town the sort of place that teenagers and old folks can feel "important" comes from the DeBartolo/Simon years. Shopping local is a worthy cause, but Knoxville investors have been traditionally frugal about aesthetic considerations in shopping malls and elsewhere; Simon is not.
Still, West Town is more modest than many Simon projects. Elsewhere in the country, Simon is doing remarkable things. Not limited to the suburbs, they've done major downtown projects, and are credited with a major renovation project in downtown Indianapolis. In Arlington, Va., Simon developed a mixed-use mall that included office space and residential, perhaps more along the lines of Victor Gruen's original vision.
And then, of course, there's the Mall of America in Minneapolis, three times bigger than West Town, which includes a park, an aquarium, and an amusement park. It could pass for a small city.
West Town's no supermall, but its multi-million annual attendance makes it comparable with a small World's Fair. Kaye Jones claims that, as "a super-regional one-level shopping center," West Town is "highly unique in the industry. Most malls of its size are multi-level centers." Jones, who's originally from Maryville but worked in retail in Florida for about a decade, says West Town's also more upscale than most malls. Manager Tim Hill says it offers a more diverse selection of tenants than the malls he worked for in Louisiana. "This mall is as nice as any of the malls in Louisiana," he says.
Regardless of urbanites' prejudices of mall people as bland conformists, when you go to the mall you see a crowd of people that looks like just about everybody. This crowd is definitely weighted in favor of women, which isn't surprising; West Town lists 14 stores that specialize in women's apparel, and only onea tough-sounding place called "Structure"that specializes in men's. But you do see a lot of men, too, and beyond that gender variable, this is a diverse crowd. After all, the patrons of Brooks Brothers, Victoria's Secret, GapKids, Spencer's Gifts, Lemstone Books, Bombay Co. and Sears may not have much in common with each other. You see everybodyalmost.
Who are all these people, exactly? A promotional brochure claims that "Customers living in the area immediately surrounding West Town Mall have the highest income levels within Knox County's 21 zip codes." But a walk through West Town's parking lot might cause you to wonder how relevant its actual neighborhood is. Never mind West Knox, maybe half of the license plates you see aren't from Knox County at all. Many are from Blount, Anderson, and Loudon, but some are more distant still. The Howard Johnson across the street does a significant trade from folks for whom a shopping excursion to West Town is more than a day trip: Howard Johnson Motel manager Cheryl Shelton says, "especially during Christmas time, we get a lot from the Johnson City area, Kingsport. Also from Jellico, Williamsburg, Corbin."
Kaye Jones is protective of their demographic research, allowing only that "our demographics mirror those of our trade area." However, some reflections are more attractive than others. According to West Town's own handout, Fast Facts, "The average annual household income of West Town Mall shoppers is $61,303, significantly above the trade-area average."
At West Town, you may not find beggars or sharecroppers. But you do find gangs of impertinent teenagers in hip-hop duds, eccentric old ladies with big glasses, soccer moms with cell phones, scraggly loners. On a good day, you even run into an intellectual or two.
"I've come to the conclusion that Americans have a genius for theme parks," says Paul Ashdown. "We turn everything into a kind of theme park. We like controlled environments," he says. "The mall is a pseudo reality, like a theme park. It's supposed to look like a town, thus the name. But we know it isn't a real town." There was a time when that discrepancy bothered him; but life is short.
"Rather than shaking my fist at these kinds of places," he says, "and lamenting the passing of the communities where I grew up, I've grown to accept them on their own terms."
Look aroundit's clear he has some company.
Asked if they're planning a 30th-anniversary bash, West Town's management answers with one written word: "yes." But finding strains of continuity may be a problem. Miller's, West Town's flagship store in 1972, went out of business 15 years ago. Only a few of the original stores are open: only one, in fact, in its original location. Because Harwell Proffitt was intimately involved in promoting the early mall, it seemed a good place to drop in and find out if there was anybody around who wanted to reminisce about the early days. It didn't take long to realize that most of the people working there weren't old enough to count money when this store opened. One young lady offered a number of someone else who turned out to be a corporate representative for Saks. She didn't remember the mall's early days, either.
At West Town, many of the shops are retro in style. One clothing shop called Hollister & Co. even has a blue-stained tongue-in-groove hardwood front porch. It's ironic that the BBC got in trouble here attempting to research a piece called "Knoxville: Summer 1915," because that's the era that West Town tries to evoke: a time before traffic when people walked to shops beneath the shade of trees, stopped in at the corner newsstand and paused to sit on a park bench. Above the escalator, without explanation, are large models of a biplane and a dirigible.
But at a mall, things change fast. In this quaint, pre-automobile town setting, the year 1972 is such ancient history that few shoppers or clerks claim to know anybody who was here back then.
February 28, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 9
© 2002 Metro Pulse